x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Antonio Conte is the drive behind the success of Juventus

His side may be on the brink of their second successive Serie A title, but the coach is unlikely to be fully satisfied, writes Ian Hawkey

The demanding nature of Antonio Conte, centre, has ensured Juventus have remained fired up all season.
The demanding nature of Antonio Conte, centre, has ensured Juventus have remained fired up all season.

Shortly after 4pm in Italy tomorrow afternoon, Antonio Conte will stride through the door to the home dressing room at the Juventus stadium, with heat in his bright blue eyes and plenty on his mind.

His team should be 45 minutes from celebrating their second successive scudetto, the Serie A title. But even if, as is likely, they by half time have taken significant strides to securing the point they need against relegation-threatened Palermo, he will not be purring.

Andrea Pirlo, whose locker is directly opposite the door, will be sitting in Conte's line of vision. Pirlo calls it "the most dangerous seat in Turin".

Not because Pirlo is usually the target for Conte's criticism, but because he sees the perfectionist's rage coming before others do.

"At that time in a game, he's a beast," says Pirlo of the Juventus coach. "He's fizzing, and there'll always be some detail that leaves him less than satisfied, and he'll be envisaging what is going to happen in the next 45 minutes."

Whether, during a stressful summer of 2012, Conte envisaged a happy ending to the season ahead, and the defence of Juve's crown, settled with perhaps three matches to spare, is worth wondering.

Look back to the beginning of the campaign: Juventus's motivator was banned from the dressing room on match days, forbidden from roaming his technical area and facing the prospect of having to coach at arm's length for almost the entire campaign.

Conte had been judged to have failed to report an incident of attempted match fixing while in charge of Siena in 2011. He denied the allegation.

His ban was later reduced to four months, but during that time he felt caged, sitting in the television box he chose as his base during the ban.

He watched as Juventus lost their unbeaten record in league matches under him, last November against Inter Milan. He felt concerned, when one defeat in 49 matches became two in 52 with a loss at AC Milan.

Pirlo and company may have been quietly relieved that Conte was not around to "beast" them at half time that evening. He made up for it later. Conte shouted: "How can we lose to them? I just don't understand it."

Juventus have become more beatable this season than last, but they might justifiably attribute that to a greater sense of adventure.

By this stage of 2011/12, they had won 20 of their 34 Serie A contests; they have won 25 this term.

They are more potent in front of goal, even if the capture of a target-man centre-forward has become a priority for the club. Fernando Llorente, the Spain striker, will arrive in July.

Conte will hope he gets more goals from Llorente, who will join from Atletic Bilbao, than Nicklas Bendtner, who signed from Arsenal last summer but who, partly because of injury, has not challenged Mirko Vucinic or Alex for the spearhead role.

Yet, overall, Juventus's transfer strategy for the defence of their title proved sharp-eyed in key areas.

Paul Pogba, the French teenager lured from Manchester United, has matured impressively as a rounded midfielder.

Conte's hunch that Kwadwo Asamoah, the Ghanaian used in a central role just behind the striker during his time at Udinese, could be reinvented as a left wing-back, was as inspired as it was imaginative.

Behind the roaring, rousing Conte is a perceptive thinker and planner.

"I knew Conte would be tough and charismatic," said Pirlo, who was recruited on a free transfer from AC Milan in 2011 and turned out to be huge coup for Juve. "But I soon found out he also has plenty that others could learn from tactically and technically."

Indeed, Conte's Juventus can be seen as trendsetters in Serie A. Though he is not dogmatic about his formations, his preferred 3-5-2, in which Stephan Lichtsteiner and Asamoah are crucial as wing-backs, is now imitated widely in Italy.

Conte, still only 43, will fully merit the plaudits he receives from players and most opponents, once the title is achieved. As he reminded his squad two years ago: "This club has finished seventh in the table the last two seasons. That's not good enough for Juventus." First, and first again, is - although Conte will still spot plenty of room for improvement.


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